The Guardian State

This column appeared in the Albany Times Union May 31 2014.


David Brooks in his column (“State of Guardian states,” May 21) argues democracy is in decline worldwide, citing the increased number of democratic governments that are rated as functioning poorly. He plainly thinks our own country is doing badly, with a “pathetic” 26 percent of voters believing in the government’s ability to do the right thing.

As for a solution, he thinks we should borrow a page from China or Singapore. How would that work out? There would be a lot of Simpson-Bowles-type commissions that would enable us to react to changing times more rapidly.

Here we have a conservative columnist decrying gridlock. The irony is truly astonishing. How many crises have we been through brought on by House Speaker John Boehner and the tea party Republicans who have been pulling him around by the nose hairs, threatening default on our debt, and then forcing a partial government shutdown to try to force right-wing policies on the Obama administration?

In a democracy, and in contrast to China, it is possible to vote out those responsible for bad government. Here’s hoping it happens soon.

Boehner Wrong Again, This Time on Foreign Policy

John Boehner writes on CNN that in Afghanistan we need to avoid the mistakes we made in Iraq. This was an intriguing statement. I thought we made all the mistakes in Afghanistan that we made in Iraq already! What is the deal? Well, Boehner thinks that we got out of Iraq “too soon” and that the Obama administration needs to talk less about getting out of Afghanistan and more about accomplishing our mission there. Again, my cognitive dissonance detector went off. Isn’t Osama Bin Laden dead after all?

Everything is explained when you realize that despite all his talk about bipartisanship on Afghanistan, Boehner is seeking to reclaim the old Republican position of being the reliable party on foreign affairs. A tough sell considering the record of misery brought on by Bush’s adventurism.

Saddam and Bin Laden are dead. I say, finally, mission accomplished. The USA has more important things to do than try to pacify these two troubled countries.

Doing the Brahms Requiem

On May 3 2014 Sharon and I formed part of the chorus of Albany Pro Musica to perform Ein Deutsches Requiem, by Brahms, under the direction of the opera director Sara Jobin, with John Cheek and Maureen O’Flynn and the Pro Musica Orchestra, the flexible ensemble organized by Anne-Marie Barker-Schwarz. Ms. Jobin is not the regular conductor of Albany Pro Musica, but stepped in for this concert after the founding director, David Griggs-Janower, died in August. Rehearsals started in September, and were interspersed with rehearsals for other concerts, including the Dvorak Stabat Mater only a month ago.

During her rehearsals, Sara concentrated on diction and text, but also worked hard on pitch and rhythm with the expanded chorus. Many of the singers had performed this piece a number of years ago, but many were new and had little experience singing in German. We worked on prononciation up to just before walking on stage at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Sara insisted that everybody also learn the meaning of the words, believing that this was an important key to conveying the emotional import of the text. Psychologically this makes sense, because a lot of vocal and facial expressions can be influenced unconsciously by the meaning of the text; it might be possible to conjure these up like an actor, but it is probably easier to depend on a more instinctive mechanism. Every conductor has an approach, but all the good ones I have worked with have insisted on singing with feeling. That is a large part of what choral music is all about.

A slender woman, Sara nevertheless is a commanding presence on the podium, moving at times more like a dancer. Most conductors harangue the singers to watch them, but she did not have to do this. I found it fun to watch her, and in the end I felt better prepared than usual.

The text of this well-known piece is not a standard Catholic requiem, but a selection of religious passages that are somber and philosophical, summarized best by the texts of the opening and last movements, remarking the happiness of those who have suffered but pass on in the faith. The final movement, “Seilig sind die Töten” is a serene evocation of this hopeful feeling. The melodies are beautiful and the dynamic shifts in the piece are impressive.

One never knows about the size of the audience in advance, but the house was reasonably full – about 700. After a couple dozen hours’ worth of rehearsal, and perhaps an equal number of hours of practice at home, the singers, the orchestra and conductor, and the officers and staff members of the collaborating organizations came together to produce about an an hour and five minutes of complex and beautiful music, a great classic. It was a satisfying experience.

I joke around with fellow choristers after concerts: “Another piece of ephemera down the tubes!” Maybe I should not. To me the enjoyment of being part of the performance lasts much longer than that of the audience member, but the regret of having to stop working on a piece calls for a sort of distancing. I remind myself that there will be other pieces to sing, and start looking forward to the next thing. I will file this one in my memory as one of the most rewarding ever.

An independent review of the concert appeared today in the Albany Times Union.

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